How one high school is constructing their own definition of rigor, in service of developing high expectations and meaningful work for students.
JACQUI STOLZER, Special Education & ELA Specialist & LAURA RIGOLOSI, Literacy & Special Education Specialist
After several years of prolonged uncertainty and hardship, a feeling of normalcy seems to finally be settling in, and schools want to refocus their vision for high expectations and meaningful work for students. As coaches, we’ve noticed that “rigor” has become a topic of particular interest for school leaders this year.
However, not everyone has the most positive associations with the word, and we can’t really blame them (just look at the dictionary definition — yikes!). What we mean by rigor in the educational context is often unclear, and it’s for this reason that we believe in the importance of co-constructing definitions and characteristics of the concept as a school community.
We’ve undertaken this endeavor with the Business Technology Early College High School (BTECH) — one of our wonderful partner schools in Queens, New York — and have been investigating the concept of rigor through a variety of entry points. Our inquiry around rigor began with a tool developed by our colleague, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, who envisions rigor as an odometer, a visual retake on Bloom’s Taxonomy. After working with the “Rigormeter”, the staff at BTECH engaged in inquiry around how to assess and establish criteria for rigorous questions. Here is a snapshot of how we explored this question and a look into the insights that were gleaned.
Assessing for rigor
What makes a rigorous question? The central way that teachers pursued this line of inquiry in our workshop was through a hands-on, minds-on activity. In small heterogeneous groups (mixed in terms of both content areas and experience), teachers were given an envelope of paper strips, each printed with a question inspired by real high school curriculum (How does the greenhouse effect work? What is exponential growth and where do we see it in our everyday lives?). Working collaboratively, teachers were tasked with sorting the questions into categories according to their perceived level of rigor. As we circulated the room, we heard teachers engaged in rich and lively discussion as they made decisions about how to rank questions according to their rigor level, and why.
Establishing criteria for rigor
After teachers spent some time engaging in the question sorting activity, we asked the small groups to reflect and discuss together: What criteria did you use to distinguish more rigorous from less rigorous questions? Then, when we came back together as a whole staff, we asked teachers: so, what does make a rigorous question? Here are some of the defining characteristic they articulated:
A rigorous question...
After teachers generated their own ideas, we as facilitators offered a few additional criteria that worked to amplify and elaborate on the group’s working definition. The criteria we offered were inspired by some of the dispositions of competent readers delineated by Dr. Sheridan Blau in his article Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers (2003) — with the thinking that if these dispositions allow for readers to make meaning of texts and “enable knowledge” (p. 19), then questions that inspire the cultivation of such dispositions will in turn cultivate meaning-making in general.
We proposed that a rigorous question also:
The importance of complexity and flexibility are also explored in Robyn Jackson’s How to Plan Rigorous Instruction (2010).
After generating their own collective definition of a rigorous question and considering the Blau-inspired characteristics as well, teachers were given the opportunity to apply these new insights to an upcoming lesson. Teachers left the session with a new Do Now activity or slightly tweaked questions that asked for justification, for example. Most significantly, they left with clarity on what counts as a rigorous question.
As we continue working with this school, we are designing next steps in the professional learning process. Our upcoming sessions can focus on when and how to use rigorous questions, specifically, at what point of the lesson, and how to assess student response. We can also explore activities or teaching moves that pair well with investigating rigorous questions. We might also reconsider our essential questions and check how they measure against our “rigorous questions” criteria. There are many possibilities for moving forward with our inquiry cycle.
While there are plenty of resources and frameworks out there for teachers on creating compelling and meaningful questions, both facilitators and teachers found great value in doing some first-hand discovery, and in trying to articulate the nuance in what distinguishes rigorous questions from the rest.
Small moves that will help you hold on to that fresh teacher start a bit longer.
We have all seen memes of teachers beginning the school year versus teachers finishing the school year. The September teacher is energetic, cleancut and almost joyful; the June teacher looks disheveled and desperate. Think Michael from The Office on his best day compared with “Prison Mike.” It’s a funny meme, and relatable perhaps for our students, too.
But the truth is I never really feel that organized and ready for September. While I know I will never be that Pinterest teacher who has everything just so, if I spend a bit of time early in the school year planning, I can create the type of positive and organized learning environment that leads to a successful learning partnership.
Start with community building
This is a non-negotiable. I can imagine you are reading this and rolling your eyes. And frankly, I’m with you. There is nothing more irritating than community building when nobody is into it and the task feels superfluous. But hear me out: in order to have those discussions where students feel safe enough to explore and share their thinking, or feel comfortable enough to ask a question, we have to find a way to help students get to know one another. And we have to start somewhere, even if it's with just a few ice breakers that can be tweaked to fit your needs and the ages of your students. It may feel silly, but explain to your students that in order to do the hard work throughout the year, they need to know who is in the room with them, who their classmates are. Another way to think about this to help your students develop their emotional literacy within your classroom. Teaching students to talk to each other in honest and respectful ways is an ongoing and complex goal, but starting with some type of community building is the way to go.
Create or systematize the days of the week
As much as you can, of course. For instance, perhaps every Friday is a discussion day or a day to read and discuss current events, with the ask that your students connect it to your curricula. Perhaps every Tuesday and Friday are homework collections days, so students know what to expect and you can plan accordingly. You can make changes as the year progresses, but begin the year with a system to make your life and your students’ lives more predictable. My colleague Ashlynn Wittchow refers to this concept as making a plan for material management.
Sketch out the year with the end of marking periods in mind so you have a strong sense of the perimeters of your curriculum. Look at weeks where there are no breaks and consider planning a field trip or asking a speaker to visit during those long stretches. The more you can sketch out your year and plan specific events in your classroom, the less anxious you’ll feel. I say this as a compulsive list maker, and Harvard Business Review will back me up on this. Again, your schedule or plans may change, but you can start plotting different elements of the year as a way to frame your backward planning.
The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming — new procedures and mandates, the mental and physical preparation of getting your room ready — and there are always new people to learn how to work with and get to know. But there is so much possibility at the beginning of the school year, which acts as a clean slate for teachers and students. Starting the year by building community, creating systems and structures, and determining a few key dates in the timeline are small moves that will help you hold on to that fresh teacher start a bit longer.
Subtle ways to help redirect your students.
Literacy & Special Education Specialist
I recently met with a colleague who had just returned from visiting a science teacher’s classroom, and when I asked her about her visit, she replied, “I love being in his classroom. I mean, he’s such a natural teacher.” I nodded, because I know just what she means. In this particular teacher’s classroom, the students produce thoughtful work and always seem engaged, even cheerful, which is no small feat for high schoolers. He has a gentle, relaxed way about him and when students start to act a little silly or get off task, he swiftly ushers them to their seat or nudges them to refocus.
I kept thinking about that phrase “he’s such a natural,” and what it means to be a “natural” at teaching. Or anything, really. I thought about the teachers I’ve worked with whom I consider to be “naturals,” and how they seem to teach effortlessly, how they bring humor into the classroom and make students feel safe and welcome so they can focus on learning and engaging with the content.
Professor and mentor Ruth Vinz always pushes educators to name the verbs we use in teaching. In other words, what does it mean to “teach?” In this case, what are those moves this “natural” teacher makes to keep his class running smoothly, so class time is spent on learning?
Our classroom management resource can help you encourage students in your class who may need some redirecting, and proactively stop flare-ups before they start. The goal is to maximize class time with your students, and this resource may provide fresh ideas. As you look at the list, notice which strategies you are already doing and which you can try.
Below are some non-confrontational strategies from this resource that I use all the time.
Please note: if anyone in class is in danger of hurting themselves or others, the teacher needs to reach out for help immediately.
To the class aloud, “I want to say thank you to x, y and z for working quietly on their assignment.” Or “Everyone is working so well, keep up the good work!”
This strategy notices and names students who are on task, or working towards the right direction. Naming students who are doing the “right thing” is a great teacher trick, as it allows students to hear their name in a positive way. This acknowledgement can even sound like, “I love how you are partnering together and sharing your ideas,” as this feedback names the specific ways students are working in your class. When teachers use positive narration, they are creating a positive cycle that other students will want to engage in.
Teacher stands close to students who are talking or disruptive. The teacher continues to stand there until the students have stopped their disruptions.
This is such a classic teacher move that so many of us practice without even knowing it! When a student begins to get a bit distracted, walking over to the student and standing near their seat is often enough of a gesture to refocus the distracted student, instead of elevating the situation by saying their name in a disciplinary way.
Along this same trajectory, it often helps to walk farther away from students who are speaking too softly for classmates to hear. Students tend to speak loud enough for their teacher to hear, but if the teacher is moving to the far side of the classroom, they will have to raise their voice to become more understandable. This is another non-confrontational way of nudging students to project their voices instead of asking students to “speak louder.”
Teacher is speaking to the class when talking begins. The teacher freezes mid-sentence — doesn’t speak or move — and doesn’t speak again until the room is quiet.
We can all remember that teacher who could silence a class with just a look. Perhaps by widening their eyes, or a slight tilt of their head. Before you knew it, students were shushing each other and sitting up a bit straighter.
While there may be a touch of teacher magic happening in these scenarios, the “Wait” strategy is an effective way to redirect your class without raising your voice! Sometimes it takes a minute for students to get quiet. This strategy is a reminder that teachers don’t have to talk louder or speak over students; on the contrary, it is more powerful to pause and wait for class to quiet down.
It’s also a good reminder that sometimes silence or “wait time” in the classroom is necessary — particularly during discussions or after the teacher or a student poses a question.
There are some teachers who may appear as “naturals” in the classroom, but if you start to notice and name their teaching moves, you will find that they are practicing non-confrontational strategies with their students. These small moves are ones that all of us can employ, and with some consistency and a bit of teacher swagger, perhaps we can all be “naturals” as well.
Three strategies for expanding student engagement in an in-person environment.
Lately I’ve been visiting classrooms and seeing students on their Chromebooks, typing away and answering text-based questions on a Nearpod or on Google Classroom. Teachers are circulating and peering over their students’ shoulders, checking their screens to get a sense of where students are in their classwork, and to ensure they are not sliding between windows to play games or watch videos. At the end of class, teachers sometimes ask students to share a few of their answers, remind them to submit their work, and then class is dismissed. As students are packing up, the teacher may remind students to finish what they didn’t complete for homework.
In a sense, it’s almost as though this type of classroom instruction could have been facilitated in a remote setting. Students are so accustomed to educational apps that they can do their classwork without even attending class. But we are no longer remote, and as far as I can tell today, most schools are not planning to return to a fully remote school program.
So how can we make the most of being together in person and increase in-class interactions?
Get students talking
The simplest way to get your students engaged is to include “turn and talks” in your lesson plan, allowing conversations to happen in pairs. Decide on the most strategic moments to include a turn and talk — this could be any time you want students to mull over or think through a key concept during class. Asking students to talk to the person next to them will help them practice their thinking in a low-stakes way. I often find that when just one or two students are participating after a teacher poses a question, it signals that other students are not yet ready to share their thoughts with the rest of the class.
Posing a question and asking students to turn and discuss it with the person sitting near them is a way to get students thinking about the key topic, and provides a moment for the teacher to circulate and listen in on students’ thinking. This creates a perfect opportunity to cull new voices in the whole class participation: “What you said, Jess, is a really helpful explanation as to why it can inadvertently hurt our economy. Would you mind sharing this out to the whole group when we come back together?”
Make thinking visible
Pull out some chart paper and ask students to share their thinking in groups and on paper. Working on Google Docs as a group can be useful for co-writing or sharing ideas, but working on chart paper is a more strategic way to share thinking within a group and to help make the thinking visual. Some graphic organizers lend themselves well to chart paper, particularly when students are using a graphic organizer to process a concept. For example, the 4 As Protocol works well on chart paper. My colleague Courtney Brown and I have often used this protocol on chart paper as a way to demonstrate thinking about a text through these specific lenses, which can look like this:
Bring voices to the whole class
If you were a real rookie on Zoom during the pandemic (like me) and tried to have a full class discussion (like me), you quickly longed for the days to return to in-person instruction. I wince when I recall the first time I asked students to discuss what we had read — there were moments of everyone talking over each other, or everyone muted and awkward silence. While I had asked students to collect their thoughts in writing as the primary step to having a discussion, I could not ask students to turn and talk casually for 45 seconds. I could have created breakout rooms for a minute or two, but somehow breakout rooms seem too formal.
Now that we are in class together, let’s take the opportunity to help our students learn how to have a discussion as a whole group. Work up to a larger discussion by building small steps along the way: first a quick write on the topic, then a turn and talk, and finally, opening up the chance for students to share with the whole class. Using a discussion rubric in live time and then reflecting on the discussion is another way to remind students what makes for an effective conversant.
During the pandemic, we were flexible and experimented with different online learning tools. We discovered ways to teach and assess students, and we did the best we could during a most difficult time. But now that we have returned in person, let’s take advantage of being together and find ways to use the lessons we’ve learned during remote learning to increase interactions in our in-person classrooms.
How do we decide which words to teach our students?
In Including All Learners, a course I co-teach with my colleague Jacqui Stolzer, we design our content based on the questions we wonder about as teachers. One that comes up often is: How do we decide which words to teach our students? Asking this question challenges us to think about how to focus our instructional time, and nudges us to be more purposeful in designing our curriculum.
Understanding tiered vocabulary
One of the ways we decide which words to teach is by using the tiered vocabulary concept developed by Dr. Isabel Beck. Beck thinks of vocabulary words as belonging to one of three categories:
While it is interesting to group words into these three categories, how does this practice impact our instructional decisions?
Narrowing your focus
When designing lessons and prioritizing instructional time, it may be helpful to consider which tiers and key terms are worthy of classroom instruction.
As we can see above, Tier 3 words are easy to identify; these are the words that we need to teach in order for students to understand a particular concept. For example, in an ecosystem unit of a Living Environment course, words such as “abiotic” and “biotic” are Tier 3 words that are necessary terms in the unit; they are the specific words used to identify non-living or living parts of an ecosystem. In a sense, Tier 3 words are easy to determine in a curriculum because they are entwined with concepts in a particular unit.
Tier 2 words, however, are often not taught explicitly since the assumption is that students already know what they mean. It’s the Tier 2 words that need extra attention in our classrooms. These are the words to spend time teaching and modeling for your students. What this looks like will vary depending on your grade level and content area.
Modeling for your students
Consider a Tier 2 word such as analyze. Most students are familiar with that word by the time they reach middle school, but what does it really look like in math or science or English?
When students are asked to analyze a text, it’s helpful for teachers to model this work, demonstrating the pieces of a text analysis and sharing the tools students need to analyze a text on their own. Think about all the steps that are imperative for analyzing a text. If I were modeling how to analyze a passage, I might:
Analysis can change shape depending on the class — in science, analyzing lab data might look different from analyzing a passage in English. But in both cases, dedicating instructional time to demonstration of the term will help strengthen students’ skills, giving students access to academic thinking and language.
Tiered vocabulary can help you classify key terms for your grade level and content area, and as a result, make instructional decisions that hone in on teaching new or unfamiliar words for your students. Finding a balance between content-specific, Tier 3 words and more general academic terms like those in Tier 2 can help narrow your focus and increase student comfort with the words they encounter in your classroom.